The Cornicello Confession – By Michael Kfoury

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Pic by Steve Johnson

 

 

Though God watched, I was not disturbed by the empyrean witness. On the contrary, I welcomed such an audience for I had faith that the Almighty would not intervene from his heavenly balcony to stop the vengeance I was to achieve. My killing was a mere penny-sin and in no way more wicked than this war conducted with methodical madness.

The deceits from the cloth had Father Agosti marked for death, but doubt crowned my cunningness and after much debate, my uncertainty denied the killing of the priest. His presence, I confess, once inspired feelings of security, until the surviving remains of volition forced me to refuse communion from his smooth hands. Whenever a brother rested against the duckboards Father Agosti, hunched to their side, sermonized the due rewards of service to one’s country and to one’s better officers, stifling their secrets and affirming their patriot oaths. Agosti deserved death but God would not doom his servant to be left a pet for Satan, and for certain the ape arms of the Carabinieri[1] would have seized me before the one true villain, Major Zan Caputo, could expire.

The Major savored the strike of his boots when surveying the troops kenneled in our mires and earth works. Devoted to suppressing idle gossip, Caputo imposed upon us his soldierly whims nurtured with the knowledge gained by an unsharpened pencil. Domenico and I appeased the Major before taking refuge in school-day tales or meditating over our family photographs and letters. Against the sniper cracks of a calm day, he scrutinized over a romantic dagger- the paternal token of his family, running a whetstone over its talonlike blade. Not even his orderly claimed the privilege to polish off the fingerprints that often dulled the petite, squared emeralds adorning its hilt.  Completing his legionnaire’s fantasy, Caputo put aside his command of men and spent his off-the-line nights in furnished hotels, consumed by fine spirits and the soft flesh of his chosen woman.

“Due rewards!” He would exclaim, giving thanks for Agosti’s blessings within the privacy of his tent.

It was the dawn of the breakthrough. Domenico and I were engrossed with domestic duties; mending clothes and frying away lice when a symphony of whistling shells pierced the Asiago’s[2] thick veil. Savagely conditioned, we broke into packs of twenty- old veterans and green replacements hurling ourselves into neglected dug’s outs. Behind their hellfire, the Austrians crept through fallen trees, squirming to conquer our forward trench line.

Rifle to rifle and chin to chin we huddled against the rocky back wall. Our trembling bodies and the anguished prayers whispered into crosses and pendants expelled winter’s stale chill from the bunker. Squatting close to the entrance, Domenico and I tried to keep the green boys from fleeing but attempts to shout comfort and encouragement failed as our voices were sucked into the inferno above.

Stones rattled, and clumps of clay shook loose as the cannonade climaxed, drowning us in a rank heat of smoldered shell powder. Mumbled prayers of mercy degenerated into primal cries of pity as veterans and boys alike clawed at the thinning beam of May light. Above, the sandbag parados sagged over the lip of our shelter, its wooden support buckling, threatening to cave in us all. Domenico’s panting ran hot over my neck and looking through rheumy eyes I watched him, trapped in his own fears, sing a broken chorus of Hail Mary and thumb the tip of a golden cornicello, extracting the comfort from his maternal heirloom.

Drunk on adrenaline I sprung forward, pressing the whole of my body against the warped wood. A near year of eating poor man’s rations had not robbed me of strength. The beam recentered, halting the fountain pour of sand. “Out! Out….Get out!” I shouted with twitching lips, trying to ignore the sting of a thousand splinters buried in my hands.

Domenico rushed ahead dragging along two weeping boys and begging the rest to follow. The seconds meandered and, yielding to the swelling pain, I flung myself out of the collapsing dugout into the silence. All the earth stood still. Not a shell struck the ground. Such a foreign sound intensified the roar burning within my ears and the nausea twisting my stomach.

The squeals of an officer’s whistle ripping through the stillness bound me to the floor, left only to glimpse the boots of my comrades disappearing over the shattered parapets in a hurried counterattack.  By awkward crawl of hand and elbow Caputo reared around a bend drooling over a brass whistle, his dagger resting like a tail between his legs.

“A pig!” my mind mused, but a gallows-smile failed to break before the Major, seizing the clasp of my cloak, strangled me to my feet.

“Honor is an Austrian bullet. Disgrace is an Italian one” Caputo growled; his hooded eyes alight with savage desire. “Which do you choose”? A heavy click accented his question and when raised, I stared at Caputo’s fat finger squeezing the trigger of his cocked pistol.

Swallowing a gathering of curses, I decided that my murder would not spoil the hard smell of kerosene perfuming off the Major’s gun. His frontline court’s marshal stymied; Caputo thrusted a rifle into my chest and, with a sucked-in cheek, gnawed on his disappointment. The rifle, splattered rough with mud, rested uneasy in my grip. Sensing that Caputo’s pistol held me in focus I staggered forward unsheathing my bayonet, its blade stretching the Major’s leer.

“Bastard” I rasped, betraying my mask of obedience and propelled by a kick from behind, I fumbled over the parapet- the edge of civilization.

Charging through an isle of destruction, I danced between shell craters frothed with sewage and the scythe swipes of machine gun fire. Hissing bullets failed to keep me from cutting through the clay to reinforce my brothers engulfed in a mele with the Hapsburg devils. The childlike waved their empty hands desperate not to be skewered while the wrathful brained their would-be killers with calloused fists and rifle stocks- leaving the fallen moaning for a taste of water.  

“Hail Mary full of grace…. blessed is the fruit of thy womb… at the hour of our death” I recited, purchasing a minute of life when a bullet struck my flank like a slap of a nun’s cane.

Slumped over razor head stones, suffering the ashes loitering in my lungs I clung to a flickering consciousness. My eyes captured darkness- a black canvas splashed with nebulous light and loose brush strokes of color that blended into scenes of the battalion’s slaughter. How much of the lord’s time expired remains uncertain for I was infected by a worm of apathy and remained nursing my silence.

“Have courage! Do your duty! Join your brothers” an inner angel ordered with a bold voice that imitated the font of the King’s recruitment posters.

“You sacrificed enough of your youth. Take shelter in captivity” the devil of my mind coaxed.  

Temptation seemed practical, and seeking to be taken by the Austrians would not be a herculean trial. The road to Rovereto, a postcard city, rested west below the ridge. Along it an imperial patrol or field hospital could be found. The last of men worth serving had perished and summer was swift in arrival providing ample time to settle in a prisoner’s camp before confronting a stark winter. Yes internment, its routine peace and bread became my endgame.

To call it invigorating would be false, but the rush of blood awoke my dead limbs and, risking being a marksman’s prize, I hobbled to my feet. “Honor’s due reward” I murmured with a voice strained by the torture of a broken short rib. Maintaining pressure on my wound, I pushed forward through the abandoned battlefield unarmed, not wanting to provide my captors with the thinnest excuse to terminate my life.

Cramps wrung the strength from my muscles and soon I was caught near defeat in a battle of attrition. Rotting ooze gummed my legs and the deeper I trudged through the mire the tighter its grasp became. Half buried bodies attracted the swiftest flies- their swarm’s vanguard, whirling in patterns that brushed against my skin. Indulging in a wheeze of pins and needles and with careful steps, I broke through the muck’s surface, falling onto a highway of trampled mountain lilies. The setting sun washed my face as I tottered down the Austian’s wake, chewing on a mouthful of cinders and kicking aside helmets peppered with jetted iron. No marching songs buoyed my heart. Their bawdy verses were purged from memory before I relapsed into prayer, seeking relief for my plaguing thirst.

Only the wind rumbled in reply and like a beast of burden, I labored on underneath a ring of bell clouds. Reckless in their shadow I became snared and was brought crashing upon a lump of a body. Chopped laughter marked my flank’s inflaming pain. Groping along the tattered uniform my nails clinked against salvation’s stamped-metal body, and with greedy hands, I unclipped the canteen. Ripping away the leather stopper set free a sharp odor of vinegar. Slumped into comfort, I guzzled the few drops of soured wine savoring it as a slim fruit of endeavor until, unprovoked and unexpected, a drifting hum liberated me from idleness. Penetrating the gloom, I searched for its source.

Quick as a breath my muscles harden to stone, arresting me in creature fear. I had wandered into a commune of the dead, settled by those who failed to cross retreat’s threshold. The boars were offered their fill. Veterans and green boys alike wore masks of despair with eyes screaming at the amber sky above. Pillaged field bundles laid by their feet. My lungs shallowed at the fattening scent of bile still, no Christian fidelity inspired me to dig a grave for squandering such needed time would impede my trek to internment.

My wits were confirmed to be shattered when, with a worried glance, I focused on a woman orbiting the mass of dead in a lone procession. The hems of her dimmed red robes breezed over the grass. Her faint hum matured into a mournful hymn as if to recall the ghost of the dead. No cough choked her, nor did she become strained by a dying breath. Stopping at a corpse, an outlier from the main patch, and falling to the earth with poise she cradled the body. Using the point of her sleeve, she brushed away dirt from the deceased’s brow. The last of the bell clouds passed revealing her to have a plain face of dusky complexion matched with dull eyes and raven hair combed tight beneath a white headscarf. The flush that lingered above was not more delicate than that on her cheeks.

My gaze had long lost its grace. “Hallo…Hallo belle” I hailed, signaling my presence “Please be kind to excuse my staring”.

My rehearsed modesty failed to break her crooning. Mustering enough confidence to approach her proved to be a challenge for there is nothing more humbling than a Madonna in mourning, and the Madonna she was. Styling her a maid was too much of an insult. Mother was too common, and gypsy was too lacking for such a strange and commanding figure. Throughout the year I listened to English nurses swear on rumors that angels descended in Belgium, saving their nation’s army with a volley of arrows[3]. What once was petty speculation, now gave me strength to confront my own divine intervention.

Keeping a servant’s tongue, I trampled over to this Gypsy-Madonna. Stepping on some nominated grass blade she, draping away her sleeve, revealed Domenico’s weathered-tanned face made gaunt by a claw-like gash carved up his throat. Aided by the rolling wind, I threw myself to Domenico’s side, moaning the rash of scratch marks wrapped around his arms. Succumbing to a fever of lust and grief, I rifled through his pockets searching for letters or photographs to serve as final words for his midnight widow. Such pieces of home, tossed aside by raiders, were long scattered across the plateau and accepting defeat, I remained frozen on penitent knees clutching the folds of my brother’s tunic.

All my goodbyes were given in silence. The Madonna ended her hymn, preserving the sobering peace, and kneeling beside me I surrendered to her unraveling my fists. She had mother’s hands, dry as wood, and the rub of her callouses proved she needed not whisper words of comfort. Wishing to pacify my regrets, I closed my hand to lock myself to her, yet she slipped away, depositing two objects; cold, jagged, and stiff beneath my knuckles. Reaching high to capture the dying twilight, revealed a glinting emerald reflecting my scowl and Domenico’s blood-caked cornicello swaying from its chain.

“The Lord is your savior” The Madonna proclaimed. Hooked by the buzz of her voice I turned back and achieved the summit of my delirium. Dust swirled up around her robes, charming her to a wingless glide. “The Lord is your savior as I am his handmaid. His mercy extends to those who serve him. Go save your brothers and bestow his due rewards”! Her voice crescendo as she moved beyond the field of dead, pulling me to my feet. At the sweep of her sleeve, the emerald flared like a star through the gaps of my fingers. “Due rewards” she repeated harmonizing with Caputo’s growl as she faded into the evening haze, snuffing out the burning emerald. Unclenching, I saw the once glossy jewel sit charred against my palm. With a gentle prod the ancient gem dissolved into a powder- blown south toward our new defenses in the Buole Pass.

Alone on the ridge, I eyed a snake of torch light slithering toward Rovereto. The wail of mustering artillery pieces climbed above the gathering mist, and I recognized that by morning’s break, the Austrians would be primed to seize the Asiago. Rubbing the cornicello, sensitive to each spot of tarnish, I prayed for Domenico’s spirit and commended my body to the Madonna, emptying my heart of its secrets. Knowing the dangers of the coming morning I returned to the patch of dead, ignoring the patter of burrowing rats as I fished between the corpses.

“Disgrace is an Italian bullet” I recalled, embracing a smirk as I removed the revolver from its belt. Steel cold and stout as a lamb’s leg, its diamond-rough grip felt native to my hand as I curled a finger around its trigger. The stirring smell of gunpowder hung from the mouth of its barrel, and, with a spin of its cylinder, I was blessed to discover three rounds still chambered. Journeying down the venetian spine, guided by the night sky painted like a church window, I designed a plan, genius for its simple logic, before approaching the Buelo Pass.

Bidding friend to the sentries housed in their crude shelters, I asked for the Major feigning to all present that I was merely reporting to my commanding officer. Agosti held a service in the camp’s square. His oily voice floating atop the wet air called for trust in God the shepherd and in the brilliance of our officers. Keeping my back to him, I stole through the officer’s tents conscious that the Lord held me in view.

 A roar of laughter betrayed Caputo’s privacy, ending my hunt. Concealing the revolver and careful to wear a mask of submission, I tucked my head through the canvas flap. Pvt. Camillo, a fair child, sat by the officer’s desk writing on a paper flattened against his thigh. Water tossed about by the Major’s ungainly flirting soaked a red dress piled on the floor. His lover’s act interrupted; Caputo rested back against the tub pink as a cherub.

“Sir, reporting.”, I announced, giving a salute to flatter him.

Saluti Caporale[4]” he slurred, returning my salute with a toast of his tin mug that sloped wine into the bathwater. “Come in! Come”.

Striding forward, the whole of the Major’s private quarters came into view. Pressed and folded his uniform lay on the corner of a cot. A sigh escaped when I saw Caputo’s automatic pistol nestled in its holster. Shifting away, I took note of the condolence letters crammed in cubby holes above Camillo’s head. Occupying the desk’s work surface was a small loin of pork, bathed in milky grease. Two naked bottles of wine guarded the steaming meal. Pushed back into the desk’s corners stood a wrinkled photograph of a timid boy gripping the reins of a horse and a chipped wooden display case. Craning my neck, I peered through its top to see the Major’s dagger flipped upside down to hide the disgrace of a missing gem and a fresh coat of polish stained the felt lining. For Caputo, all pre-bed troubles were completed leaving a night still young.

“My dinner Private” The Major ordered, briefly overcoming his drunkenness.

Placing the letter on his seat, Camillo carried the platter in front of the Major, leaving it to balance on the tub’s edges. Caputo’s hand rose from the water, to receive a fork and knife presented by his aide its nails chipped or broken by a grave and physical struggle.

“Remember, my promise my Maria …after dinner…one night” Caputo teased in a high laugh, beckoning his bath mate to imbibe.

I became transfixed with the Major’s chosen woman, recognizing her look of appeasement as she sipped the mug dry.

 “Bravo!” the Major chirped, seizing the mug and pouring another drink to begin his meal. Soothed by the smack of his lips, Caputo was apathetic toward his bath mate retreating to her end of the copper tub

Drawing water into her cupped hands, Maria rinsed and unknotted the tangles that coiled her black hair. With her head held back she was careful not to wash away the green shadow smudged around her eyes that desperately elevated her somber country look to the exotic. Such cosmetics were required to satisfy Caputo’s fantasy. Leaving the ends of her hair, she smoothed the gooseflesh dotting her shoulders, exploiting the water’s remaining warmth. Between each pass of her hands, I counted the fingernail scars etched into her brown skin wondering how long she had been a victim of someone’s unrepressed whims. Deep into curiosity I failed to recognize my lack of concern. Sheepishly, Maria dug through her waterlogged dress and, removing a white headscarf buried within, wrapped it around her shoulders to reclaim some meager autonomy.

“The feet of a forest fairy,” Caputo piped. A splash of water broke my callous staring. Turning, I saw the Major flicking his bath on to the grass tufts and lily petals stuck to my boots. “Here Caporale…” he began after scoring a direct hit, “have a drink for we fight another day”!

Refusing, the Major’s arm was left in the air with soap dripping from his wrist. Maria, sinking further into the pink water, was stopped by a perverse stretch of Caputo’s leg. “Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” he joked draining the offered wine. His appetite restored, the Major resumed eating, becoming a clown with pork fat smeared over his mouth and cheeks.

Watching the meal disappear with each bite, Maria trembled carrying the weight of fulfilling her captor’s promise. Unable to flee or vanish beneath the water’s surface, she mumbled a troubled lullaby, extracting comfort from the sound of her own voice. Her melody aggravated the shame of my inaction until it became impossible to tolerate. Tucking a hand, I gripped the revolver. Capto’s utensils scratching across the platter masked the cocking of its heavy hammer.

““Ah-ha, I’m sorry Caporale. Pray for an officer’s commission and maybe we could share” he cracked, mistaking my glance toward his bath mate. “Still, you can have a drink, oh yes let’s have another drink! Saluti… Caporale drink, a brave soldier like you should enjoy some of retreat’s spoils…to us for we are saved”! Half of the bottle fell into the water before the mug was refilled and presented to me.

I refused, not wanting to offend my soul’s caretaker. The rudeness of my piety confused the Major allowing a lull to reign over the tent and spoil his celebration.

“Drink and be gone!” he ordered, trying to reaffirm his command. A full belly and growing frustration began to sober Caputo.

Again, I refused my brother’s killer. Striding to the edge of the bath, I took aim through my cloak.  Maria breathed life into her song.

 “Out…Get out Caporale!” he shouted, stabbing the air toward the tent flap. Snapping above the water, Caputo seized and twisted my collar, forcing the cornicello into my neck. Camillo, trained by experience, hurried to his chair in hopes of escaping his master’s wrath. “Leave me to my due rewards”!

“Due rewards” I coughed firing into the flab of his chest. Blood painted my cloak and sprayed on his dinner.  Pain only hardened his grip in a miserable attempt to crush my throat. Shoving the Major off, he tripped back into the tub clutching the bent ends of Domenico’s necklace, his final breath bubbling in the water.

Camillo escaped to summon the Carabinieri, killing the servant would have been a needless act.  Maria, closing her eyes, ended her song and in the final moment of mortal peace before my violent seizure, I watched as she stirred the darkening water with the tip of her toe.

[1] Italian Military Police

[2] A plateau located in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The region was the site of a major battle in May 1916 during World War I.

[3] A reference to the British victory at the Battle of Mons August 1914, in which rumors circulated that English Bowmen or Angelic warriors intervened to halt the German advance through Belgium.

[4] Cheers Corporal


 

About the Author

Michael Kfoury studied Political Science and Creative Writing at Suffolk University. An emerging writer, he has been previously published in the Venture Literary Arts Magazine and Stripes Literary Magazine. An old soul, Michael enjoys classic rock, classic movies, and classic literature.